Martin Abramowitz, creator of the Jewish Major Leaguers baseball card series that was the impetus behind Jewish Major Leaguers In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players, describes the last decade as a “a renaissance of interest in Jews in baseball.”
In fact, during the last twenty-five years, dozens of books have been published about Jewish baseball players, including the first Jewish baseball players’ oral history collection, Dave Cohen’s Matzoh Balls and Baseballs: Conversations with Jewish Former Major League Baseball Players (Havenhurst Books, 2010).
Jewish Major Leaguers In Their Own Words manages to break new ground, despite its lengthy list of forebearers, making it a worthy addition to Jewish baseball fans’ bookshelves.
In Their Own Words includes interviews of pre-World War II through 1950s players Cal Abrams, Andy Cohen, Hank Greenberg, Saul Rogovin, Al Rosen, Goody Rosen, and Al Schacht conducted by the American Jewish Committee in the 1970s and ‘80s. [Reviewer’s note: The unedited interviews are housed at the New York Public Library for anyone who wants to dig deeper.]
Ron Blomberg’s interview is excerpted from his autobiography, co-written by veteran sportswriter and former editor-in-chief of the Bergen (New Jersey) Jewish News, Dan Schlossberg. Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, author of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball, interviewed former New York Yankee Elliott Maddox. The book’s other interviews were conducted by Ephross and a variety of “journalists, scholars, other interested parties.”
Ephross spent more than seven years working on In Their Own Words (he interviewed Mickey Rutner in 2005, and began editing the other interviews in 2007), and his careful editing shows. Considering the diversity of source material and interviewers’ differing styles, each chapter capably showcases the players’ personalities, is eminently readable and offers self-contained, cohesive narratives.
“The collection offers countless little-known stories that paint a vivid picture of what it was like to be a Jewish Major Leaguer,” Ephross told JBW. “Thrown in are some personal details. What were their lives like? How do they feel about being Jewish?”
These fascinating personal vignettes and side stories to the players’ on-field exploits are what define In Their Own Words.
Take, for example, the interview of journeyman pitcher “Subway” Sam Nahem Nahem — the “first Syrian Jewish lawyer and baseball player” and “also one of the first [pitchers] to use a slider.” Nahem recounts telling the New York Daily News about his tenuous status with the Brooklyn Dodgers after a rough spring training outing. “I am in the egregiously anonymous position,” he said, “of pitching batting practice to the batting practice pitchers.”
One of the book’s other themes is players’ awareness “that they embodied Jewish pride” for fans.
“There’s something different about being a Jewish ballplayer than being a ‘regular’ (non-Jewish) ball player,” Ephross said. “It’s a little bit of Jewish geography” on the ball field.
There is no dearth of current Jewish players. JewishBaseballNews.com lists ten Jewish Major Leaguers at the time of of this review, including reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun and All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler.
In Their Own Words, however, contains only three interviews with Jewish Major Leaguers who played since 1980, and only Adam Greenberg — who was hit in the head during his first big league at-bat in 2005, ending his Major League career — took the field since 2000. This lack of modern representation is a curious omission shared by In Their Own Words and Cohen’s Matzoh Balls.
“Becoming more aware of your Judaism and your Jewish identity as you get older is part of the American Jewish experience,” Ephross explains. “The nature of this project is to go beyond the headlines and the quotes… and to actually learn about their lives and their experiences. It’s hard to get current players to talk about that.”
Jewish baseball fans can only hope there may be a future volume of Jewish Major Leaguers In Their Own Words that remedies this oversight and further expands on the success of the original. Appendix, index, photos.